No. 10: Occupy Wall Street

The notion of a privileged 1% has been kicking around for a while. About 1% of the population owns 40% of global wealth. To put it another way, if the 48 poorest nations pooled their resources, they’d still own less than the three richest guys in the world.

Those numbers date back to 2000 — before toxic mortgages, Wall Street implosion, country bankruptcies, and aggrieved Greeks throwing yogurt over austerity programs. In America, the latest census reported that the top 20% had nearly half of all U.S. income. The bottom 20%’s take was about 3.4% — the biggest gap to date and almost double the gap from 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Outrageous bonuses and parachute packages paid to executives of bailed-out or fallen companies have enhanced the sense of imbalance.

Adbusters goes gangbusters
Those calculations riled up Adbusters, a Canadian-based nonprofit magazine. When Tunisia erupted, inspired staffers thought now was good a time as any for America to Occupy Wall Street. One editor explained the concept as combining “the tactic of the Egyptian uprising” and the Spanish intifada, with general assemblies in which people vote “using consensus-based decision making.”

If there’s anything (former) ad people know, it’s how to make a poster, pick a slogan, and publicize it. Adbusters came up with a ballerina dancing atop the Wall Street bull, “We are the 99%,” and all forms of social media to monitor and coordinate developments.

Facing the bull
Protesters took to the streets — including Wall Street — and went online almost immediately. “Occupy Wall Street” buzzed in searches September 16, the day before the first protest, with searchers ages 13 and up, from coast (New York) to coast (Oregon). Some supporters fretted about the lack of media coverage, and some journalists thought the movement’s leaderless concept backfired.

Then again, that was what social networking, alternate media, and live-streaming were all about. Does a viral movement need mainstream buy-in? Through Occupy, would a digital generation show a new way of getting things done? In the 1960s, the antiwar protester chant was, “The whole world is watching.” In 2011, protesters spread their own message and captured their own video. They were occupying two spaces: a physical one and the digital sphere.

Turning point
Coverage came soon enough, as encampments — some functioning as mini villages — spread to more than 65 cities. Occupiers were sometimes characterized as socialists or drum-circle hippies, but the wide-ranging involvement of celebrities, moms, college students, military veterans, and retired police chiefs made the movement difficult to pigeonhole. (Even the Muppets got drafted.) This diversity would also later make for compromising video footage or tweets, such as the pepper spray incidents involving an 84-year-old woman and UC Davis students.

One California city’s attempt to evict campers turned Occupy Oakland‘s ire upon the government. The police shot tear gas canisters and fractured an Iraqi vet’s skull. He recovered and gained instant folk-hero status. A quickly organized general strike and mass day of action brought in thousands of peaceful marchers by day, as well as a handful of masked, so-called anarchists by night. Searchers posed the question, “Why Occupy Oakland?” Whatever the reason, the San Francisco Bay Area city served as the movement’s first really raucous confrontation. Later crackdowns on college campuses and Zuccotti Park spurred media coverage, support, and a pepper spray controversy.

Would you like tea or occupation?
Occupy’s quick rise sparked comparisons with the tea party. The movements shared surface similarities: a gathering of disenfranchised citizens inspired by a media campaign (Adbusters vs. Rick Santenelli of CNBC), coming together to express frustration against institutions — both without a clear platform.

Of course, the differences run deep (and the tea party was adamant in making distinctions clear). One distinction was Occupy’s online appeal: Comparisons between the first weeks of each movement reveal Occupy Wall Street garnered more searches than the tea party in all but the first week.

Time for a plan
Two months into the movement, questions on “what is Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy Wall Street demands” surged. With winter approaching, it was the Adbusters editors who suggested a drawdown date: December 17, the three-month anniversary.

Some encampments have lingered, but others have packed up for the next stage, whatever that might be. No matter what its future may be, Occupy has accomplished one thing: It has shown how America’s largest generation, with some Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers mixed in, are ready to change the conversation.

Vera H-C Chan has been the editorial lead for Yahoo! Year in Review for five years running.